Iron deficiency in children – what’s the fuss?

By Dr Tommy TranNutrition01 Sep 2015


Iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency seen in infants and children. It is estimated that one in 12 toddlers will be diagnosed with iron deficiency. The most common causes of iron deficiency in children are inadequate intake from reduced red meat intake or excessive milk intake. The calcium in milk competes with the iron, stopping it from being absorbed by the body, resulting in iron deficiencies. Toddler who drink lots of milk will also eat less iron rich foods. Other causes of iron deficiency include coeliac disease, prematurity or excessive blood loss. In general, solids can be started between 4-6 months of age and rice cereals are now fortified with iron.

But why is it a problem having low iron?  Children with low iron levels are at risk for neurodevelopment delay and cognitive impairment. There have been several studies that have shown that supplementing children who are at risk of iron deficiency, can prevent or correct impairments in children’s psychomotor development.

Babies who are born prematurely (before 32 weeks gestation) will routinely be given iron supplements if they are exclusively breastfed. Premature babies who are formula fed do not require iron supplements as formulas are now fortified with iron.

Your doctor or paediatrician will take a dietary history and will suggest testing if required. If the ferritin levels come back low, this suggests your child is iron deficient. Your doctor may then recommend supplementing with an iron liquid or tablets. It is important to repeat the test after 3-4 months to ensure that the levels have returned to normal.

Remember that taking your iron with vitamin C (or juice) will increase the absorption of iron, whilst drinking milk with decrease the absorption. Common side-effects of taking iron include dark stools, constipation and abdominal pains. Should this happen or if you have any other questions remember to talk to your doctor.


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